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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, December 12, 2004

A Short History of Bali

A Short History of Bali: Indonesia's Hindu Realm by Robert Pringle. Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2004. ISBN: 1-86508-863-3

Bali is one of the more fascinating tourist destinations of this century, a name that resonates with magical and exotic overtones. Before reading this succinct (a mere 231 pages) and eminently readable tome, my knowledge of Bali was fairly limited. I knew it was one of the many islands that make up the archipelago nation of Indonesia. I knew it was the home of the marvelous musical instrument/orchestra known as the gamelan. I knew it was famous for its silver work and especially silver beads, which my wife prizes in her beading avocation.

What I didn't know, or realize, was that the Bali culture is based on the Hindu religion, surrounded on all sides by the largely Islamic culture found in the rest of Indonesia. Nor did I realize the depth of creativity that seems to permeate every aspect of Balinese culture, nor what a unique embodiment of religious and cultural traditions this one small island represents.

Balinese culture is probably even more fascinating than Balinese history, and this book provides merely the shallowest of glimpses into what it calls "The appeal of Balinese culture." The author quotes anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said of Balinese villagers that "Their lives were packed with intricate and formal delights."

To provide just one example of many, the Balinese use two calendar years simultaneously, one similar to our 365-day solar calendar, and "one of 210 days arranged in 30 seven-day weeks, plus a variety of additional week cycles of differing lengths." "The intersection of the cycles tells . . . whether any given day is auspicious or inauspicious, or something in between, for performing various activities, ritual and otherwise." Anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in his classic essay on the subject, explains (in our author Robert Pringle's words) "that the Balinese find this kind of complexity, which is reflected in almost all aspects of their art and social behavior, pleasing and beautiful both to themselves and to the gods. Manipulating the intricate forms is amusing to humans and at the same time a form of worship."

Pringle spends more of his time outlining what little is known of ancient Balinese history, and how its somewhat unique brand of Buddhist influenced Hinduism may have come about, moving on to briefly chronicle the history of Dutch colonialism in the region, and moving on to the role of Bali in the larger modern and independent nation of Indonesia, ending with a discussion of the effects of tourism on Bali, both positive and negative, and its ramifications, from an ecological, as well as social and economic perspective. All in all, this book provides a brief but intriguing look at a truly unique corner of the globe we all inhabit. The book is highly recommended, especially for armchair travelers, and should be required reading for anyone considering a trip to Bali.

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